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Pedalling and paddling along the misty north coast

By Ben MacGregor

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The stack of Lady Bighouse guards a bay of skerries.
The stack of Lady Bighouse guards a bay of skerries.

You need to organise a shuttle if you wish to kayak a stretch of coast without returning the same way. I don’t like them – there’s too much to think about, and it’s all too easy to leave the car keys with the bike or the paddle in the car.

On a calm, misty morning at Sandside harbour I unloaded the boat and all the gear needed for paddling safely. Then I drove over a foggy Drum Hollistan to Portskerra, took the bike off the car roof and cycled back to Reay. The secret with car keys is to either leave them in a key safe attached to the car, or keep them (dry) on my person.

Something always gets forgotten or left in the wrong place, hopefully nothing vital. This time I could have done with my high-vis jacket for cycling through the dense fog. With nothing to see of the views, I enjoyed the wild flowers on the roadside, counting over 50 by the time I was back at Sandside. Mostly not common weeds either, nice plants like foxglove, yellow rattle, white campion, bell heather and kidney vetch.

It takes concentration to pack everything properly in the boat, check hatch-covers are secure and make sure I have easy access to radio, personal locator beacon and camera. So the tourists who like to come and talk may find me a bit taciturn!

At last I was off, now free to paddle along to Portskerra. The fog rolled in more thickly. Once out of the harbour and round the breaking waves I was glad of my compass till the misty outline of the undercut Sandside Head appeared.

There was more swell than expected, surging and breaking over reefs and against the cliffs; there might be nowhere to stop before Melvich. I turned through a gap in the surf into the long narrow geo west of the headland and paddled to the end for a snack to keep me going for two or three hours if need be.

Initially I could hardly see the cliffs, having to paddle well out, but the fog slowly thinned and eventually rose to a low ceiling just off the sea. This was a good time to practise navigation, carefully ticking off each rocky inlet and headland on the map.

Once round Red Point there’s often some shelter to explore. Here is Easter Clett, a sea-tunnelled stack in a bay of kittiwake and guillemot cliffs. On past Middle Clett – too much swell to attempt the passage below the cliffs – then round to the puffin stack at the entrance to Geodh Eisgiadh.

This beach of big, rounded rocks is a good place to land if you can get through the narrow passage through which the swell surges. I didn’t like the look of it and carried on, but found the next entrance more sheltered and managed to squeeze through under the kittiwakes to emerge at the cliff-girded beach.

There must have been a dozen people down at this normally quiet spot; it’s getting known as a good place to see puffins. The birdwatchers looked a little surprised at seeing a yellow kayak suddenly emerge from a dark passage between the misty cliffs!

Timing it between waves I leapt out and pulled the boat up, enjoyed another snack and cup of tea from the flask, then slid back in over the slippery rocks and disappeared into the mist the way I’d come.

Easter Clett, a sea-tunnelled stack in a bay of kittiwake and guillemot cliffs.
Easter Clett, a sea-tunnelled stack in a bay of kittiwake and guillemot cliffs.

The aptly named stack of Lady Bighouse guards the next bay of skerries, a place to be wary of breaking swell, as I know from bitter experience. Beyond, steep cliffs with grassy ledges and many puffin burrows led round the final headland till the yellow sands of Melvich Bay appeared out of the mist. Good surfing waves were rolling in but I could get between them into the river mouth for another stop – my kind of paddling involves frequent lazy breaks!

A final crossing of the bay and paddle round the last headland took me into Portskerra.

I’d reversed the car down the slip to load the boat when another tourist came down to talk. He was a refugee from a stressful job in Kent; his wife had been ill and he was already finding huge solace in the peace and beauty of what we’d consider quite an ordinary place. He was staying the night locally and hoped to do a bit of fishing. I wished him a really good holiday, then, before driving back to Sandside for the bike, double-checked that I hadn’t left half my gear lying on the pier!

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